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DisTIL Fellowship

The DisTIL Fellowship (Discovery Through Iterative Learning) bring artists to UNC’s campus for multiple semesters. These unique residencies do not focus upon an individual performance. Instead they bring the resources of the university’s faculty to inspire and inform artists’ artistic process. DisTIL Fellows collaborate with faculty in a department outside of their own area of expertise, providing them the opportunity to gain new insights into the questions that they have been asking about their work and the world. At the same time, the DisTIL Fellow will bring the unique creativity and approach of the arts to the work of the faculty, helping push UNC faculty and students to look at their work with a new lens, and share their work with new audiences.

The DisTIL Fellowship extends over several semester as a way to recognize that collaboration does not happen overnight. It requires many meetings and time to build the shared trust, respect, and vocabulary that can allow for artistic and intellectual exchanges to take place. DisTIL Fellows spend 1-2 years visiting campus, connecting with faculty, and sharing the results of their ideas and discussions with the wider community.

DisTIL Fellow: Toshi Reagon

Previous published in the Spring 2017 issue of CONNECT

toshireagon1On a balmy January evening, five faculty members gathered around a table to meet with musician and composer Toshi Reagon. The conversation was not about Toshi’s long musical career or her last visit to Chapel Hill in collaboration with the tap ensemble Dorrance Dance. Instead, Toshi listened and asked questions of these faculty from the Department of City and Regional Planning and Geological Sciences. They embarked on a three-hour discussion of how Hurricane Matthew impacted communities in Eastern North Carolina in October 2016, and how water quality and distribution is measured and studied by professors at UNC. Most importantly, the conversation revolved around information from faculty research that can help communities in North Carolina, and how to get that information into the right hands to make an impact.

Toshi Reagon is the inaugural DisTIL Fellow for Carolina Performing Arts. Funded by a $1 million grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the Discovery Through Iterative Learning (DisTIL) Fellowship brings artists to campus for multiple semesters to build partnerships with faculty. These partnerships provide artists time for in-depth learning and exploration of the expertise of the faculty. At the same time, the DisTIL Fellow offers new skills for faculty to rethink their own work, both how they research and how they communicate and share their work.

The Fellowship is founded on the belief that artists and the arts can offer faculty new ways to think creatively and communicate. “I am thinking of faculty as people who have a mastery of data,” Toshi observed during her visit to campus. “You’re all thinking of this work, and thinking about how we can get this information into people’s hands to have more awareness.” For the faculty, Toshi offers a new lens to think about sharing the research that might otherwise appear in journals and conferences, but, for example, does not make it to the individuals whose lives have been affected by Hurricane Matthew. “How do you communicate the impacts of what we study? How do you inspire people to act?” asked Dr. Laura Moore, a professor of Geological Sciences who researches the interactions between natural and human environments on North Carolina’s coast.

These conversations began with Toshi’s next project, an opera based on the Octavia Butler novel Parable of the Sower. The book imagines a United States in the year 2024 suffering from a cascade of environmental and social disasters. The protagonist, 15 year-old Lauren, must rebuild her community after losing her home and family. From this challenging story, Toshi finds connections to a range of faculty research projects at UNC that examine the impacts of water quality, housing policy, privatization, community development and much more.

At one point over dinner, as Toshi reflected on the terrifying future predicted in Parable of the Sower, she reminded the faculty that “everybody needs to know what you know. And we need to make sure that everybody knows what you know.” Over the next two years as a DisTIL Fellow, Toshi will benefit from the extensive knowledge and insight of Carolina’s faculty. Perhaps more importantly, she will be able to collaborate with the faculty to devise new ways to tell the stories of their research, which will improve the lives of residents in North Carolina and beyond.

BY Aaron Shackelford

DisTIL Fellow: Robin Frohardt

Robin-Frohardt_376x251Robin Frohardt will collaborate with faculty from the Curriculum in Archeology  an interdisciplinary field that brings together researchers from six departments at UNC. For this collaboration, Robin will learn from archeology faculty how they understand the material evidence of the past. She will join faculty in the field and in the labs to learn how they identify materials found in sites, and how they interpret the meaning and importance of materials. These insights will inform Robin as she designs her own installation that speculates how future generations of archaeologists will understand and study our plastic-filled environment. At the same time, Robin’s work pushes archaeologists to think more closely about how they will account for plastic materials that they are already locating in dig sites around the world. Together, Robin’s work gains from the knowledge of UNC faculty and in turn encourages UNC faculty and students to push the boundaries of their work.

Robin will also spend time in UNC’s BeAM Maker Space. This network of makerspaces brings the UNC community together in the design and making of physical objects for education, research, entrepreneurship  and recreation. Working alongside UNC students, Robin will design new approaches to making the materials that will fill the Plastic Bag Store. Conducting workshops with the students, she will share her creative process with the students to help them develop their own unique plastic materials.

There are still many conversations to be had with faculty on campus. As she looks forward to her return in April and over the summer, Robin hopes to connect with faculty who study the impact of plastic on our environment today. From water quality to waste management and recycling, our environment is increasingly impacted by the manufacture and distribution of plastic. Robin hopes to learn how Plastic Bag Store can accurately tell this story, and how her work in turn can help faculty to share the results of their research with a wider audience in an entirely new format.